Dale Wainwright, '88: Navigating Multiple Arenas in Pursuit of Justice

Dale Wainwright, ’88, is chair of the Texas appellate practice group at Greenberg Traurig. From 2002 until he retired from the Court in 2012, Wainwright served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court—the first African American to win election to an open seat on that Court.

In Texas, Supreme Court justices stand for election for their initial and subsequent terms, and Wainwright had to prevail not just in statewide general elections in 2002 and 2008, but also in Republican Party primaries and a primary runoff election in his first campaign. He made more than 150 appearances throughout the state during his 2002 campaign. 

“It was grueling, intense, educational, and, candidly, a lot of fun,” he said. “The people of Texas take their votes for judges and justices very seriously, and they have a sense of the difference between a politician’s political philosophy and a judge’s judicial philosophy. I believe they voted for me because they believed that I would uphold the rule of law, being fair to all sides, and that I wouldn’t use my position to impose my own views on the cases I heard.”

He recalled a moment when US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia commented during a dinner with the Texas justices that the University of Chicago Law School was the most rigorous law school in the country. “Certainly, I felt a sense of pride, and I got some good material for lighthearted ribbing of my fellow justices,” Wainwright said. “From my experience at the Law School, I had no doubt that Justice Scalia was right. I received a great education there.”

Before he won election to the high court, Wainwright had served as a state district court judge, appointed by Governor George W. Bush to fill a vacancy on that court. “I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was very young, growing up in Tennessee, but I had not ever aspired to be a judge,” he said. “When Governor Bush’s staff first asked me, I turned down the job. Thinking it over, I realized the opportunity to provide public service and the learning experience it would provide. And there was no professional downside. The sacrifice was the effect on our family budget, on my wife and three sons. We talked it over, my family supported me, and I was appointed to the bench—and I found that I loved it.”

Married while he was at the Law School, and with his first child born near the end of his second year, Wainwright said that he didn’t have a lot of time for extracurricular activities, but he did serve as president of the Black Law Students Association, and he was instrumental in naming the BLSA chapter to honor the Law School’s first black graduate, Earl B. Dickerson.

Today, in addition to further building the appellate practice at Greenberg Traurig, he serves in several other prominent roles, including by gubernatorial appointment as chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state’s prison system and its three-billion-dollar annual budget; and as a board member of the US Chamber Litigation Center, which directs the litigation and amicus involvement of the US Chamber of Commerce on behalf of its 300,000 members. He is a cofounder of Aspiring Youth, a nonprofit foundation that helps at-risk youth improve their educational achievement and stay in school.

“Whatever I have achieved, I am blessed that my family is at the heart of it,” Wainwright said. “One of our sons is a Columbia undergraduate, one is a professional dancer, and one is an Internet entrepreneur. My wife has carved out a very successful career of her own. Seeing them succeed and thrive is the best of all the many wonderful things that life has given me.”